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‘Where Is My Language?’

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Soon after the release of the draft New Education Policy (NEP), 2019 the first controversy that erupted was on language in education. Tamil Nadu’s reaction to the language-in-education policy—the three-language formula—and the state’s opposition to what it describes as the “imposition” of a language compelled the central government to add statements that would make the way for flexible implementation by the states. Though the three-language formula has been seen as an attempt to bring in equality among major Indian languages, particularly Hindi and other Indian languages, and to bring about a linguistic harmony in education, the bone of contention has always been between the teaching of the states’ majority languages and pan-Indian languages like Hindi or Sanskrit. Tamil Nadu sees the threat to its language,

Tamil, from the pan-Indian language Hindi. Likewise, other states like Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh would also see Hindi as a threat to their languages, Kannada and Telugu, respectively.

The three-language formula had emerged as a political consensus in the chief ministers’ conferences in the 1950s and in the meetings of the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE), a statutory body consisting of the education ministers of all states and the minister of human resource development. The National Commission on Education, 1964–66 (known as the Kothari Commission) recommended the formula as suited to the whole country. The principal aim was to promote mother tongue-based education, both as a language and as the medium of teaching. This was discussed in Parliament and, in 1968, it passed a resolution (the 1968 education policy) stating that “arrangements should be made in accordance with that formula for the study of a modern Indian language, preferably one of the Southern languages, apart from Hindi and English in the Hindi-speaking areas and of Hindi along with the regional languages and English in the non-Hindi-speaking areas.”

All the national curriculum frameworks and the National Policy on Education, 1986 have recommended the implementation of the three-language formula in its true spirit, while expressing regret on its “unsatisfactory” implementation. The fundamental aspect of the formula is to promote mother tongue-based education, which has been derailed since the beginning. Quite a section of children across the country are yet to find their mother tongue being taught in their school as a language, leave alone it being the medium of instruction. Most tribal and minor languages are not taught even as a language in the schools.

All the policies, commissions, and curriculum frameworks recommend that learning in the mother tongue is ideal for cognitive development of children. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, brought out after long struggles and debates, attempts to ensure the study of the child’s mother tongue during the first eight years of schooling. It recommends, “medium of instructions shall, as far as practicable, be in child’s mother tongue.” Even the act, which stands for achieving and ensuring inclusion to the core, had to use the rider, “as far as practicable.” This dilutes the spirit of education in the mother tongue. The draft NEP, 2019 has added the term “local language” in addition to the home language/mother tongue. But, in continuation with the stand the previous policies have taken, it also uses the riders like “wherever possible” and “when possible,” which in the true sense makes it a convenient escape from providing education in the mother tongue or teaching it as a language in schools:

Home language/mother tongue as medium of instruction: When possible, the medium of instruction—at least until Grade 5 but preferably till at least Grade 8—will be the home language/mother tongue/local language. Thereafter, the home/local language shall continue to be taught as a language wherever possible. (P4.5.1, p 80; emphasis mine)

We need to recognise that education is shaped by the demands of the society and the times in which it is situated. The framers of the draft NEP, 2019 must have given serious thought and reflection before adding in these riders, for they recognise the problems in the doability or achievability of ensuring the teaching of all mother tongues in schools. But, a policy should not be swayed by the tides of the current times. It should be envisaging long-term solutions to these problems. Taking the provision of granting voting rights to all citizens of India in the Constitution as an example, we saw that it never took into consideration aspects like literacy, caste, landownership, urban/rural residence as criteria for being eligible to vote; it had age as the only eligibility. It never used the riders “when possible” or “wherever possible.”

About 8% of Indian population belongs to tribal communities. Their identity and culture is linked with their languages. The only way to ensure that these languages do not become extinct from this multilingual country is to give them their place in school education for at least five to eight years as a language. This could be achieved making special provisions for regions/districts where the tribal and minor language population is concentrated. This would not cost much, and what is needed is the political will to accomplish this.

Educational planners should hear the voices of the tens of thousands of tribal and minor language children, asking “Where is my language?” The draft policy avows to make education “India centred” in its vision, but how would this be when these children are forced to study in a language which is not their own because of riders like “wherever possible” and “when possible”? Is there a way to remove the words “wherever” and “when” and make it “possible” to have the mother tongue as a language during the formative years of schooling?

Ramanujam Meganathan

New Delhi

Updated On : 9th Aug, 2019

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